March 20, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - Derrick Nix played all of five minutes, pulled down just one rebound, handed out a lone assist and didn't attempt a field goal.
And yet, Nix will tell you it was the highlight of his basketball life because even though that national semifinal game in Indianapolis against Butler ended in a heartbreaking 52-50 loss, it came in the Final Four.
That is the mystique the NCAA Tournament, and especially the Final Four, holds for all but the most jaded mercenaries who see college basketball as a means to a financial end.
Nix averaged only 2.4 points, 2.0 rebounds and 8.2 minutes in five NCAA games in 2010 and was still a few trials and tribulations and a couple of years away from seeing eye-to-eye with coach Tom Izzo, but nothing he has done since compares.
Nix allowed himself to imagine what it would feel like if his team - and by rights it is "his" since he's its only senior and a co-captain - returned to the Final Four.
"To get back to another one would just top it off and I feel like we've got a legitimate shot if we just stay focused and bring it every night," Nix said Wednesday while sitting in the Detroit Pistons locker room at The Palace. "We all talk as a team, coaches included, that this is just that time when you don't want to be done.
"As a senior, it's the end of your career and you want to play as long as you can down this stretch. Tomorrow could be my last game if we lose, but I don't want it to be so I'm going to go out there and spill it and give all I can give."
Nix is guaranteed one more college game and could play in a maximum of six if MSU advances to the national championship game. His final journey as a Spartan begins against Valparaiso on Thursday, not far from where he grew up in Detroit.
"It's pretty sweet to be starting here because it's more convenient for my family to come and watch me play and I still feel like we're in the Spartan Nation because of the Michigan State alumni remaining in Michigan.
"I'm probably the only person out of my neighborhood to go to Michigan State and play basketball, but a lot of people will be watching. Michigan State gets a lot of respect throughout the city of Detroit, so everybody will be pulling for us."
Although Izzo has spoken highly of Michigan State's team chemistry all season, he remains concerned about its leadership, which has been lacking since Draymond "Day-Day" Green, one of the most emotional leaders in school history regardless of sport, used up his eligibility last season.
"I think I've got to do more convincing because when you lack a true aggressive leader, they've got to hear that," Izzo said. "They can't hear it two hours in practice. They've got to hear it every day in the locker room.
"I remember Day-Day against St. Louis (last season in the Round of 32) in tears in the locker room at halftime - and we were winning. It meant that much to him."
Despite Nix's imposing stature, his captainship is marked more by his easy-going demeanor and a need to please those around him than to demand from them.
If he's ever going to fill the leadership void, he knows it's now or never.
"I gotta just set the tempo, bring the energy and be the most poised one out there so everybody can just follow my lead," Nix said. "It's not pressure. You just have to be smarter and more locked in than everybody else.
"We are here so we have to take advantage of our opportunity by winning some games and getting to that ultimate goal."
Izzo continues to struggle to find his team's pulse at times, but maybe Nix and his teammates have more in common with Green than he thinks.
Junior point guard Keith Appling said the Spartans are motivated to keep Nix's final season alive for as long as possible, but with only one more full season to play, he's also contemplating his own legacy.
Since 1999, every four-year player who has competed for Izzo has made it to at least one of six Final Fours. Nix isn't the only one playing with a sense of urgency.
"Yeah, time has grown short for me," Appling said, "and that's one of the things I keep in the back of my mind each and every time I step out on that court. I do not want to be the one guard that breaks the tradition, so we're trying to do as much as we can to try to advance and potentially get to the Final Four."
Appling said Izzo's tournament resume and experience gives the Spartans an advantage over nearly every other team in the field. Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew, for example, is making his first NCAA appearance since he was immortalized when he made a 23-foot buzzer-beater that allowed Valpo to defeat Mississippi in 1998.
"But it still all comes down to us and how we play when we're out there on the floor," Appling said.
Another factor that could make up for MSU's leadership shortage is the variety of teams it has played over the course of the season. The No. 3-seeded Spartans may not have played Valparaiso, but they've played someone similar along the way.
They defeated one No. 1 seed, Kansas, and were 0-2 against another, Indiana, but had a chance to win both of those games down the stretch. They lost to Miami, a two-seed, but have also beaten a two-seed, Ohio State.
"We've pretty much played everyone there is to play in the country," Appling said. "We're not intimidated by any team out there. Whoever we have to play, we'll show up prepared to play as hard as we can for 40 minutes."
Nix and Appling may not provide the demonstrative leadership Izzo craves and overt drive he admires so, but maybe their quiet determination, the kind that runs strong below the surface, will be enough to produce a new career highlight.